Multiculturalism and the Russian March

Demonstrators at the Russian March. Source: Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti

Demonstrators at the Russian March. Source: Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti

Members of Russia’s working class are not ready for multiculturalism, especially when migration from the former Soviet republics is seen as a threat to their own existence.

Every year, thousands of assorted nationalists, with views ranging from moderate to extremist, converge in Moscow for the so-called Russian March. This year’s edition was watered down by differences over Ukraine and a ‘Unity March’ that easily outnumbered the nationalists’ protest.  It would be too simplistic to paint all the people taking part in the Nationalist March with one brush and call them lunatics or members of fringe groups. Some of the protestors may actually have genuine grievances, but it is unreasonable for them to put all the blame for illegal immigration on the government.

After eleven years of living in and out of Russia, I can safely say that Russians are generally very tolerant and the country has an open society. However, two decades after the fall of communism, the class structure has crept right back into a country, where it did not exist in this form for many decades. It is the blue collar immigrants that are likely to face the most discrimination in the country since they are the ones doing the “dirty” jobs. It’s also these immigrants that live in suburban ghettos in Russia, and are not part of the society.  Immigrants from the lower strata of society face similar problems everywhere.

These nationalists who march in Moscow seem to forget the basic fact that for most blue collar work, ordinary Russians prefer hiring migrants. I have seen many of my Muscovite friends picking up day labourers in the spring and summer for work on their dachas. The Uzbek, Tajik and even Ukrainian workers are more than happy to work for much less than what a Russian citizen would. They also tend to be hard workers as they are in the country for a time period and purpose. Essentially, it is the middle class of Russian cities that are actively fuelling illegal immigration, by hiring migrants in the first place.

Post-war Europe was in large part rebuilt by labourers from North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. These migrants brought their families over and legally attained citizenship and are now seen by many as a threat. In Russia, the situation isn’t exactly the same. Studies have shown that a large number of these migrants do not want to settle down in Russia. The remittances from migrant workers have led to a construction boom in many former Soviet republics. The dream of a typical Central Asian migrant is to build a big house back home with money earned in Russia.

Essentially it is the working class of Russia that feels threatened by the influx from the former Soviet republics. The people who never directly benefitted from the capitalist systems of Russia have a perfect scapegoat in illegal immigration. The problem is that the migrant ghettos often come up in and around working class neighbourhoods and with this comes the hostility. It remains to be seen whether a harsh economic climate in the next few months would give rise to a growing wave of misdirected negative feelings for migrants.

Those that are the least secure financially obviously have the greatest fear of survival. So when the poorer sections of society almost get a feeling of being outnumbered, conditions are created that lead to social unrest like what happened in Biryulyovo last year. Members of the working class in Russia are not ready for multiculturalism, especially when migration from the former Soviet republics is seen as a threat to their own existence.

It’s easy to point fingers at the protestors that march against immigration in Moscow on November 4, but then xenophobia is a direct result of fear. Take the example of Goa. There is a small but loud minority in the idyllic Indian state that complains of the Russian presence. Many Russians actually spend half the year in Goa, staying on tourist visas. There’s nothing even remotely illegal about this, and they boost the local economy with spending that often borders on the reckless. Most people are happy with the large number of Russian visitors to the state. The vocal minority in Goa, on the other hand, claim that the northern part of the state is being taken over by the “Russian mafia.” Such assertions are bizarre but have an audience. The point is that xenophobic rhetoric can easily be played well to the gallery of those living in fear.

It’s important to look into concerns of groups that fear migration and deal with such concerns if they are well grounded. Last year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev put it best when he said that migration was neither a good or bad thing and that it was just a way of life. It is really about how the process is managed.


If there is one good thing about migration to Russia from Central Russia and the Caucasus, it’s the proliferation of restaurants serving cuisine from these countries.  Even the most ardent of nationalists would not complain about this phenomenon. 

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